Suicide is an act so shocking and violent that it undoes not only sensation, memory and feeling, but meaning. Poet and novelist Ocean Vuong describes how it unpicks even the connective tissue of language.
The death of my best friend by suicide last summer completely undid me. The experience has changed the way I experience the world, my relationship to myself, friends, loved ones, but it has also changed my relationship to my work. It has forced me to think differently about suicide’s frequent appearances in what we know of ancient Greek and Roman tragedies.
Phaedra is one such suicide tragedy. Director Simon Stone is at the helm of a new adaptation for the National Theatre, having previously directed Yerma (2016) with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic and then Medea (2014), which came to London’s Barbican in 2019. In both previous productions, Stone has the female lead take her own life at the end of the performance and his Phaedra is no different.
Stone is working from multiple sources: Hippolytus by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides, Phaedra by the Roman poet Seneca, Phèdre by the 17th century French dramatist Jean-Baptiste Racine and Phaedra’s Love (1996) by British playwright Sarah Kane.
As classics professor Edith Hall explains in the National Theatre’s programme, each version portrays Phaedra’s suicide differently in her plot to love and then discredit her stepson Hippolytus by falsely accusing him of rape following his rejection. A second death occurs when Hippolytus’ father kills him, for what he believes Hippolytus has done to his wife.
In all these versions – but especially Kane’s – suicide is an avoidable but seemingly inevitable horror. It is a corrosive agent for the drama, that leaves the characters on their knees, making sounds “like an animal that just learned the word for God”.
Stone’s production of Phaedra
The National Theatre’s Phaedra is quick witted, acerbic and does some light decolonial thinking, but it cannot fathom the ways in which suicide undoes people and their relationships to one another.
Stone changes much of the Phaedra story. Phaedra’s part is distributed among a couple of characters. Firstly, Helen (Janet McTeer), a shadow environment minister who, while studying at Oxford, went abroad to Morocco. There she fell in love with a man and took him away from his family so that he could drink, consume drugs and dream of being a rock star.
Hippolytus is no longer Phaedra’s stepson but Helen’s lover’s son, Sofiane (Assaad Bouab). Sofiane looks just like his father, who died tragically in a car wreck. We hear his voice recordings to his son which play in the long blackouts between scenes, variously morose, loving, macabre and suicidal.
Helen is complicit in this infidelity and her former lover’s eventual death. The play blames her almost entirely, with a long, hateful monologue delivered in French by Sofiane’s mother Reba (Sirine Saba) and translated live into English by Helen’s diplomat husband Hugo (Paul Chahidi) in the final scene.
The part of Phaedra is also shared with Helen’s daughter, Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) – a millennial who would be a good fit in White Lotus. Isolde is wracked by white guilt and very upper- middle- class privilege consciousness. Her marriage and NGO are failing. She shares Phaedra’s desire to be out in the wilderness, have scraped knees and hoist a bow over her shoulders.
Both Helen and Isolde sleep with Sofiane, producing much of the play’s farcical energy. The scene in a London restaurant that opens the second act is excellent – the audience gasped, feared, pitied and wondered at every revelation, expertly delivered by the ensemble. But it is Helen alone who shares Phaedra’s death.
Excruciatingly, she takes her own life on stage, creating the final image of the play. Sofiane disappears into a heavenly white haze, while Helen sinks into the ground alone, traces of her blood and sweat staining the “glass” box in which the production unfolds.
In Euripides and Seneca’s versions, Phaedra is undone by a god. But Stone’s Helen is a villain driven mad by the guilt of her own actions. “At least”, a Telegraph interviewer reports McTeer saying, “Phaedra has the ‘redeeming’ grace to kill herself.”
Instead of implicating us in Helen’s choices and their aftermath, Stone asks us to project our shame onto this “post-menopausal woman” and make her the scapegoat.
I marvelled at the set design and excellent performances. And I enjoyed the skill of the lighting, costume and sound designers, the work of the intimacy director, the speed and determination of the stage managers and backstage team. In minutes, they turned an upscale London living room into a Suffolk field.
However, I found the choice to stage Helen’s suicide as a redeeming act – and the invitation to cheer in the curtain call, just seconds after her death – dreadfully misplaced.
Instead of railing against Helen, I’d like to see a version of Phaedra where the desires of a postmenopausal woman aren’t played for shock and laughs. One that looks at why suicides like this take place and advocates for a world where mental health services are funded and people don’t die in their thousands.
Phaedra is on now at the The National Theatre, London, until April 8.
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, the following services can provide you with support:
In the UK and Ireland – call Samaritans UK at 116 123.
In the US – call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or IMAlive at 1-800-784-2433.
In Australia – call Lifeline Australia at 13 11 14.
In other countries – visit IASP or Suicide.org to find a helpline in your country.